March 3, 2003

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Dust Bowl lessons: KU historian reviews what 'Dirty '30s' taught Americans

LAWRENCE -- The drought that Kansas and other Midwestern states are experiencing is mild compared with that of the 1930s, which produced the Dust Bowl label for the Great Plains, says Donald Worster, Hall distinguished professor of American history and award-winning environmental historian at the University of Kansas.

Worster, who studies policies and practices affecting settlement of semi-arid lands including Kansas, says that the drought periods in the 1930s and again in the 1950s taught Americans a few things, but not enough about preserving semi-arid land.

"We haven't been in drought that long -- but if we would have several years of severe drought, we know what the conditions will be. Dust storms will occur again," Worster says. Periodic drought is characteristic of the Great Plains, he says. "The peak year of dust storms in the 1930s occurred after three or four years of drought."

Agronomists estimate that as much as three to four inches of topsoil was lost in parts of the Midwest due to drought and wind erosion during the 1930s. Much of the blowing soil that swept across the nation in the 1930s once was held in place by native plants adapted to droughty conditions. New markets for wheat and cattle before and after World War I resulted in overgrazing or plowing of marginal lands to produce crops, setting the stage for dust storms that literally buried parts of roads and buildings in parts of Kansas and Oklahoma.

Although today's farmers have learned techniques such as stubble mulching and "no plow-no till" farming to protect fields from wind erosion, Worster notes that the losses of soil and crops during the 1930s and in the 1950s in the Great Plains states taught Americans two things.

"We have mainly learned to go to the federal government for relief and to depend on irrigation to save us from drought," he says.

Calls for drought relief ask the government to pass the risk to taxpayers around the country, but relief costs ratchet into the billions of dollars and encourage more people to stay on marginal land, Worster says.

New developments in irrigation since the 1930s have allowed us to pump out aquifers, Worster adds. "It's a nice bank account to have in dry times, but we use it in dry and in wet years," Worster says of irrigation methods that allow thirsty crops to thrive in areas of low rainfall.

Policy makers and farmers also learned to recognize that man was responsible for the Dust Bowl -- that it wasn't just an act of God, Worster says.

A conservation reserve program was added in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan to rent land to put back native grasses, but Worster cautions that the program is not big enough in scope to make a real difference in preserving marginal land.

Scientists continue to offer theories, such as sun spot activity, that would enable farmers and policy leaders to identify weather patterns and climatic cycles on the Great Plains, Worster says. But none have proved that nature can be managed.

"Climate is part of what scientists call a chaotic cycle," Worster says. "Trying to identify weather patterns is trying to define weather into neat, definable cycles so that we can manage nature, which is unmanageable."

The search for a technological fix to managing nature has not provided solutions, Worster says. "The question is whether we've learned long-term adaption to the Great Plains," he says, noting that Kansas was settled largely after the Civil War. Even as recently as the 1920s, Kansans were plowing a lot of virgin land, replacing native grasses with imported crops.

Drought is not just a Kansan or American problem, Worster adds. He recently received a phone call from Chinese officials searching for solutions to quell huge dust storms originating in Western China, some of which left measurable amounts of dust in parts of Arizona.

In 1979 in his prize-winning book "Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s," Worster urged the use of a form of agriculture that would preserve well-adapted ecosystems. He concluded then that as populations around the world moved onto marginal land, destroying well-adapted ecosystems for food production, problems resulting from drought and climate changes would continue.

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